The worst defeat ever inflicted upon American troops by Native Americans did not occur at the Little Big Horn in 1876. It occurred in what was then known as the Northwest Territory of the young United States, which had been ceded by the British in the Treaty of Paris. The signatories of that Treaty were the French, the British and the Americans. The Northwest Territory was occupied by none of these, and was instead held by Native American tribes including Shawnee, Miami, Huron, Delaware, and many others.
The tribes formed what became known as the Western Confederacy in 1786, and raids by the tribes on western settlements led to the government in Washington sending federal troops. By the late 1780s more than 1,500 settlers and explorers had been killed in the Ohio and Wabash Valleys and surrounding lands. After an earlier expedition ended in failure, President Washington sent Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory and a Major General in the Army, on an expedition to destroy the Western Confederacy in the summer of 1791.
St. Clair assembled and trained his army in Fort Washington, (Cincinnati) and marched it north to the area of present day Fort Wayne, Indiana, arriving there in late October. Throughout the summer the size of his expedition shrank due to desertions, disease, and occasional hit and run attacks. Meanwhile, the Western Confederacy assembled a force of well over 1,100 warriors, led by the Miami Little Turtle and the Shawnee known as Blue Jacket. St. Clair’s force was just under 1,500 men, accompanied by nearly 250 women and children.
On the evening of November 3 the Natives attacked the American troops, using tactics which drew the Americans into woods where they were shortly surrounded and slaughtered. Each subsequent American bayonet charge led to a Native withdrawal, encirclement, and massacre. By the time the remnants of St. Clair’s force managed to escape, 97% of the troops involved were casualties – the highest casualty rate ever experienced by the United States Army in combat. Over nine hundred troops and thirty-nine officers were killed. The number of prisoners taken is unknown since most were executed by the Natives.
The British celebrated the Native American victory and used it to drum up support for their proposed Indian Barrier state between the United States and British Canada. President Washington lobbied Congress to strengthen the American Army – which it did – and sent General Anthony Wayne with new troops to end the threat. Wayne’s troops crushed the Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.